Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Year of Publication
Belle Dame Sans Merci" is a literary ballad, a poem that imitates a folk
ballad. A folk ballad tells a story on a theme popular with the common
people of a particular culture or place. Generally of unknown authorship,
a folk ballad passes by word of mouth from one generation to the next.
One of its key characteristics is a cadence that makes it easy to set
to music and sing.
literary ballad has a known author who composes the poem with careful deliberation
according to sophisticated conventions. Like the folk ballad, it tells
a story with a popular theme. However, accomplished nineteenth-century
romantic poets such as Keats couched literary ballads in more elegant language
than that of typical folk ballads. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is intended
to be read, not sung.
completed the poem in April 1819. Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), a critic and
poet, published a revised version of the poem in his literary periodical,
Indicator, in 1820. The original version is generally regarded as superior
to the altered version.
Keats based the title of his literary ballad on the title of a long French
poem with a different story. The title of the latter poem, written in 1424
by Alain Chartier (1392-1433), is “La Belle Dame sans mercy.” (Notice the
different spelling of the last word.) As a feminine noun, the French word
means pity or mercy. As a masculine noun, it means thanks. The translation
of the title is “The Beautiful Woman Without Mercy.”
time is late autumn. The place is England during the Age of Chivalry. A
lovesick knight tells an unidentified person about a beautiful “faery's
child” he met in a meadow.
Interpretation 1: Unrequited
telling the knight she loves him, the beautiful lady lulls him to sleep
and abandons him. As he sits alone on a cold hillside, his unrequited love
makes him physically ill. He lacks the energy and will to move on. All
he can do is brood.
Interpretation 2: Impossible
30 of the poem says, "And there she wept and sighed full sore." The suggestion
here is that the lady does care for the knight but realizes she must leave
him because she is a fairy and he is a human. Two such beings cannot have
a life together. This theme can apply to any man and woman who love each
other but cannot marry because of cultural, religious, or social barriers
or any other impediment.
aware that lines 37-44 bring into question the validity of this interpretation.
However, it may well be that the fairy lady, depressed and lonely in her
grot (line 29) became enamored of kings, princes, and other knights
in previous decades or centuries.
Interpretation 3: Terminal
the summer of 1818, Keats began exhibiting symptoms of tuberculosis, a
disease that had already infected his younger brother, Tom, who died in
December of that year. Exactly when Keats became aware that he was suffering
from a killer disease is uncertain. But, as an observer of his brother's
symptoms and as a trained apothecary who had worked in hospitals, Keats
must have suspected that his own symptoms were an ominous sign. Consequently,
when he wrote “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” in the spring of 1819, he might
have intended the beautiful woman as a symbol for the life, which was slowly
slipping away from him. During this time, he must have felt like the knight
sitting on the cold hill—pale, feverish, and alone. He lasted less than
two more years, dying in February 1821.
Award-Winning Film About Keats and
available at Amazon.com is Bright
Star, a DVD centering on the soulful love affair between John Keats
and Fanny Brawne when he was at the height of his poetic powers and in
the throes of disease that ended his life when he was only twenty-five.
Amazon.com says it is "rich, sensuous, quietly thrilling," a film to be
added "to the very short list of admirable films about writers." The review
continues as follows:
movie, set during his last several years, focuses on his playful friendship
with and evolving love for Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), the independent-minded
young woman who lived next door in Hampstead Village and was, in her own
fashion, an artistic spirit. Completing an ineffably fraught constellation--not
exactly a romantic triangle--is Keats's host Charles Armitage Brown (Paul
Schneider), who loves, esteems, and regards Keats with both pride and envy,
and engages in an unstated rivalry for Fanny. All three performances are
superb, with Whishaw adding to his gallery of artist figures (the olfactorily
obsessed murderer in Perfume, one of the Bob Dylans in I'm Not There),
and Cornish and Schneider taking top acting honors for 2009. As in Campion's
The Piano, others are party to the central story, and they have identities,
personalities, and claims to intelligence and understanding that we appreciate
without having it announced in dialogue. Kerry Fox (redheaded wild girl
of Campion's An Angel at My Table nearly two decades ago) evokes Fanny's
mother with a few brushstrokes, and Fanny's young sister and brother are
watchful presences and de facto co-conspirators in the courtship. In addition,
Bright Star is the rare period movie to convey--without being insistent--what
it was like to be alive in another era, the nature of houses and rooms
and how people occupied them, the way windows linked spaces and enlarged
people's lives and experiences, how fires warmed as the milky English sunlight
did not. And always there is an aliveness to place and weather, the creak
of boardwalk underfoot and the wind rustling the reeds as lovers walk through
a wetland. Poetry grows from such things; at least, Jane Campion's does.
--Richard T. Jameson
Scheme and Meter
rhyme scheme of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is abcb—that
is, the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme.
each stanza, the meter of the first three lines is iambic tetrameter. In
this format, a line contains four feet (four pairs of syllables), with
the stress falling on the first syllable in each pair. The first two lines
of the poem demonstrate this metric pattern.
The meter of the last line of
each stanza is usually in iambic dimeter: In this format, a line contains
two feet (two pairs of syllables), with the stress falling on the first
syllable in each pair. The last line of the first stanza demonstrates this
In addition, the last line of
some stanzas combines an anapestic foot with
an iambic foot, as in line 8:
and the HAR..|..vest's
poem is a dialogue between an unidentified person and a knight. The former
asks the latter why he looks so pale and feverish. The latter responds
with his story about the beautiful fairy woman.
mood of the poem is somber and sorrowful. Keats maintains it with such
adjectives as woebegone, sighed, gloam, and alone.
In addition, he sets the poem in late autumn so that nature—the withering
sedge, the cold, and the absence of birdsong—reflects the mood of the knight.
are examples of figures of speech in the poem:
(line 2): alliteration.
lily on thy brow (line 9):
metaphor comparing the knight's paleness to the hue of a lily.
And on thy cheeks a fading
rose (line 11): metaphor comparing the color of his cheeks to the color
of a rose.
beautiful, a faery's
child (line 14): alliteration.
of relish, sighed
full sore (line 25): alliteration.
And there . . . (lines 30,
31, 33, 34): anaphora.
I saw pale
Kings, and Princes too / Pale
warriors, death pale were they all
(lines 37-39): alliteration.
La Belle Dame Sans
By John Keats
Original 1819 Version
O what can ail thee, knight
Alone and palely
has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Plant with pointed leaves and tiny flowers.
O what can ail thee, knight
at arms! 5
So haggard and so
The squirrel’s granary is
And the harvest’s
Woeful, mournful, sorrowful.
I see a lily
on thy brow
With anguish moist
and fever dew, 10
And on thy cheeks
a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
thy brow: Pale forehead.
a fading rose: The cheeks are losing their color.
"I met a lady in the meads,
Her hair was long, her foot
was light, 15
And her eyes were
"I made a garland for her
And bracelets too,
and fragrant zone;
She look’d at me as she
And made sweet moan.
zone: Sash for the waist.
"I set her on my pacing
And nothing else
saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend,
A faery’s song.
"She found me roots of relish
And honey wild, and
And sure in language strange
“I love thee true.”
dew: Edible product of various kinds of plants.
"She took me to her elfin
And there she wept,
and sigh’d full sore, 30
And there I shut her wild
With kisses four.
"And there she lullèd
And there I dream’d—Ah!
The latest dream I ever
On the cold hill’s
is about to happen
"I saw pale kings and princes
Pale warriors, death-pale
were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame
hath in thrall!”
hath in thrall: Inverted word order. The meaning is has you
in thrall. Some texts print this line as Hath thee in thrall.
"I saw their starved lips
in the gloam,
With horrid warning
And I awoke and found me
On the cold hill’s
"And this is why I sojourn
Alone and palely
Though the sedge is wither’d
from the lake,
And no birds sing."
Questions and Writing Topics
Write another stanza (or two)
in which you take the part of the questioner and respond to the knight's
Reread lines 27 and 28, then
answer this question. If the lady speaks a strange language, how does the
knight know what she said?
Has a disappointment of any
kind ever made you feel like the knight? If so, write a short poem about